Actors-turned-directors George Clooney and Ralph Fiennes have each been met with a fair share of acclaim for their work behind the camera. For their newest efforts, Clooney, an Oscar-nominated director for his “Good Night, and Good Luck,” and Fiennes, coming off of his well-reviewed debut “Coriolanus,” explore untold stories within very popular subjects.
“The Monuments Men”
George Clooney’s“TheMonuments Men” is the sort of failure that is hard to believe. Working off of an acclaimed non-fiction work of the same name, and gathering an unmatched cast of actors ranging from John Goodman to Bill Murray to Matt Damon, it seemed like a film with strong enough credentials to work, at least, as mindless enjoyment. Alas, it does not.
In fact, “The Monuments Men” is pretty awful; a strange combination of gung-ho patriotism, near-constant speechifying set to a triumphant score, characters that may as well take the name of the actor playing them, and shoddy production design that utterly fails at capturing the feel of war, rather opting for a look comparable to an episode of “M*A*S*H.”
The question that needs to be asked of Clooney, really, is why adapt this into a film? Nothing new is brought to the table; a broad, constantly-recited theme about the preservation of art, and of how not enough people care that the Nazis are stealing and destroying it, works in a book well enough.
The exploration of the theme ends with Clooney’s character, a professor tasked with rescuing stolen works of art during World War II, telling the government why the art needs to be saved. In terms of artistic exploration of the theme, there really isn’t any.
More baﬄing still is Clooney’s depiction of the war. The score, a rare misfire for Alexandre Desplat (nominated for an Oscar this year for “Philomena”), aggressively and strangely alternates between excessive patriotism, broad screwball farce and “Schindler’s List”-level melodrama.
Despite a pair of Monuments Men falling during wartime, one never gets even the slightest sense of danger from the surroundings, and the razor-thin characterization of each player in this film renders each post-death scene beyond cringe-worthy.
Beating on “Monuments Men” is a little senseless, because this really is a harmless piece of blockbuster moviemaking. The frustration lies in just how many things the movie does wrong, and how much better it could be. We are hardly short of WWII movies, but the idea of “Monuments Men” is an interesting, even fresh one. What does it mean to fight for our culture and way of life if we are letting its core disappear, and fall out of our hands? Clooney is not interested in this question – an unabashedly romantic patriotism makes this film feel very 1960s, at best – and rather tells his story procedurally and simply.
Even more disappointing is what he does with his actors. From Goodman to Murray to Damon, and extending to great character actors like Bob Balaban (“Moonrise Kingdom”) and Hugh Bonneville (“Downton Abbey”), it has been a while since I saw such a depth of great performers given nothing to do. Murray plays it satirically, Goodman boorishly, Balaban cowardly – the very essence and style of each of these actors.
The only performer asked to really put something on screen is Cate Blanchett as a French spy, but a mix of clichés – in particular, an obsession with what is “French,” citing wine, cheese and, yes, romance – and a poor accent prevents her from making any sort of an impact.
“The Monuments Men” was pushed out of the 2013 awards season and into February, and Clooney explained that the movie was never intended to be a prestige project. Yet at the very least, one would expect it to have something to say, to not have such a disastrous grip on its tone, to bring out something in its remarkably capable team in front of, and behind, the camera. In the end, perhaps Clooney’s words ring true: this is not an awards player or a prestige project – rather, just another empty blockbuster.
“The Invisible Woman”
The most immediate and clear distinction to make between “Monuments Men” and “The Invisible Woman” is Ralph Fiennes’ remarkable command of mood and tone. Whereas Clooney tried to make something between an epic war film and a light buddy comedy, Fiennes consumes himself with time, location, motif and style, and in turn conveys an admirably singular vision.
While it will no doubt turn people off, and its especially slow beginning left me cold, I found in the end “The Invisible Woman” to be remarkably thoughtful, impressively committed and altogether surprisingly provocative. Its center is Nelly (A passionate Felicity Jones, “Like Crazy”), an 18-year-old who works as an actress with her sisters and mother (Kristin Scott Thomas, “I’ve Loved You So Long”), and who comes across Mr. Charles Dickens (Fiennes) while rehearsing for an upcoming play.
Not too much happens in “The Invisible Woman,” a description I usually avoid but is pertinent here; its action only really begins around the 45-minute mark, and this is not a long movie. And there are not many distractions, either – a vibrant, haunting score pops in only sporadically, leaving characters to speak between themselves amid silence. Fiennes, as a filmmaker, expresses the art of connection: there is not much to get out of this movie unless conversations are carefully listened to, interactions most closely watched.
But listen and watch – there is a lot going on here, a lot to consider. Dickens, a public man in a loveless marriage, is brought to startling life by Fiennes in one of his finer performances. His Dickens is not the troubled artist, nor the larger-than-life genius. He is an artist, consumed by both his image and his work, a public figure wrestling to find happiness and greater success.
Nelly is an equally interesting case: she is not, as other depictions would likely tell us, the remarkable young actress Dickens cannot turn away from. In fact, she is not all that talented. She is been born into a life not quite suited to her, with her mother well-aware of this fact but unable to fix it.
As Dickens grows closer to Nelly, and Nelly unsure, “The Invisible Woman” lands its central and most powerful moment: Dickens’ associate Wilkie (Tom Hollander, “In the Loop”) tells her to go for it, telling her the times are changing, and that life has become about choice and freedom. Nelly bursts out hopelessly, explaining that this may be true for Dickens and Wilkie – but for Nelly to reject Dickens would be to go back to nothing, or toward nothing. Despite her admiration and fondness for him, she recognizes the relationship’s pending conclusion, yet she can only trap herself in it.
Dickens is trapped by a similar conceit. A man of the public and of fame and success, he cannot truly follow his desires – doing so would destroy his image, credibility and work. Fascinatingly, “The Invisible Woman” establishes a connection between the two people so deep that both understand their pending demise.
While deliberately a love story very much of the time, “The Invisible Woman” asks starkly prevalent questions of publicity and patriarchy. It is the public eye that prevents the relationship – the secret – from flourishing, yet the underlying problem remains Nelly’s requirement to join him, to hide with him, and ultimately to let him leave.
I have spoken more than usual about what is actually going on in “The Invisible Woman,” rather than focusing on elements that do and do not work. Perhaps this is Fiennes’ greatest strength: he has created something so layered that each of the film’s moments should be explored not as a measure of quality, but as a dialogue about the whole. His commitment to mood is as stoic as it is commendable, however, and for the average viewer, the film can feel like a drag. Ultimately, “The Invisible Woman” works best as a conversation piece, its ideas and execution trumping the viewing experience it elicits.
Dickens is writing his first draft for “Great Expectations” throughout the picture, and originally in the novel – so the film says – love was not enough for his heroes to get together. This narrative, which publishers deemed uncommercial and unworthy, expressed that Dickens “knew that we were all alone,” as Nelly says in the film’s final moments.
Just as he had written an ending fated for rejection, his love for Nelly had no place in the public eye. Image consumed him, just as everyone knew it always would, and in the end, to be a man of the public meant to be a man by himself.